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Fri., May 19, 2017, midnight

Margaret Sullivan: Ailes inadvertently emboldened women

If what Roger Ailes wanted most in life was true and lasting influence, he got it.

The founder of Fox News is gone but before he went, he helped put Donald Trump in the White House and, ironically, emboldened a nation of women to decide not to take it any more.

That’s a powerful legacy. And power is what Ailes dealt in – advising everyone from Richard Nixon to Rudy Giuliani, and giving Donald Trump a platform and cheering squad like no other.

It’s inarguable: There would be no President Trump without Chairman Ailes.

This power came with a price. Women who worked with him paid it in humiliation and psychological anguish.

But then they decided to learn from the master and take power back.

Gretchen Carlson started it – and it’s startling to think that one year ago, the former Fox host had not yet filed her sexual harassment suit against Ailes. He was still ensconced at the top of the network he co-founded 20 years before and his employees still quaked when he spoke.

And the rest of us had yet to hear the now-famous words that he reportedly said to Carlson, pressuring her for sex in return for career advancement: “You’d be good and better and I’d be good and better.”

The former Miss America decided to pass. She took a career hit, and then she struck back.

Carlson filed suit on July 6 last year, and, though Ailes never stopped denying that he ever harassed anyone, his world came tumbling down. Fast.

He was gone from Fox two weeks later, after a parade of other Fox women came forward to back her up.

“I thought I would be fighting this all by myself,” Carlson told me last summer.

Quite the opposite. Not only did Carlson prevail, reaping a $20 million settlement from Fox News, but the network since then has paid out at least $85 million to deal with sexual harassment claims – including a big payout to its star, Bill O’Reilly, who joined Ailes’ fall from grace last month.

It’s been damaging, and the turmoil is far from over.

You can be sure that bosses and human resource departments everywhere have taken note.

No workplace in America will ever be the same, whether corporation, university or government office. Because what happened at Fox could happen anywhere. Sexual harassment allegations must be taken seriously, lest they explode in the employer’s face.

Fox itself, of course, lives on – without its biggest stars in O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly (who joined the ranks of Ailes’s accusers). And so does its most stunning achievement: the Trump presidency. A Pew survey showed that Trump voters disproportionately relied on Fox for campaign news.

In the new Netflix documentary, “Get Me Roger Stone,” the famous Nixon-era dirty trickster describes his attraction to Trump as a presidential candidate: “I was like a jockey looking for a horse. You can’t win the race if you don’t have a horse, and he’s a prime piece of political horseflesh in my view.”

If Stone was the jockey, Ailes was the trainer, not just for Trump but for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Giuliani: in the background, but calling the shots. And forever transforming conservative politics.

“Roger Ailes knew how to harness anger to move the electorate – and in doing so he created Trump’s base,” said Morgan Pehme, the co-director of “Get Me Roger Stone,” which examines the rise of right-wing media and politics.

But unwittingly, Ailes tapped into another kind of fury, too – that of thousands, maybe millions of women fed up with the power imbalances of their lives and workplaces.

“Post-Ailes, and Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, we’re in a moment of tremendous explosive potential for women,” New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister, author of “All the Single Ladies,” told me.

Anita Hill’s claims against Clarence Thomas didn’t keep him from joining the Supreme Court but made sexual harassment a household phrase in 1991. Though “a profound loss,” Traister said, the episode propelled many women into Congress.

Nearly three decades later, Ailes’ stamp on history isn’t fully known.

But his gift – if you can call it that – of calling forth the fury of the disenfranchised is playing out for women in ways he could never have imagined.

And surely would have rejected.

Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist for the Washington Post.



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